And there was the not-so-small matter of the head coach. Dan Healy had arrived to take the reins, making him the fourth Hilltopper Head Coach in as many seasons. New players, new coach, new system. In sum, it looked like a proverbial rebuilding year.
Well, someone forgot to tell the players and coaches associated with the program or, if it was a rebuilding season, it was far from a tear down. More like the basketball version of a live-in remodel.
Numbers in sport rarely lie, but occasionally they do shroud the truth a bit. True, despite a gritty performance, Summit ended their season with 53-40 loss to Mendham in the State Tournament. Also true, the loss meant the Hilltoppers season record stood at .500 -- twelve wins and losses each.
The traditionally average-looking record does not indicate the decidedly above average, over-achieving nature of the team. a group which -- after slogging through a tough stretch from late December into mid-January -- went 8-5 leading into the State Tournament.
After learning Healy's new system and -- more importantly -- committing to it, the team gelled. On most nights, Jordan Gonzalez was the top point getter, Wong the floor general, Pat Maloney played big inside, sophomore Will Schaffer was the sniper from distance, and either Dan Montgomery or Paul Flanagan servied as the consummate "glue guy" who contributed in myriad ways.
But, given Healy's 94-foot, up-tempo on both ends of the floor philosophy, it took a rotation of nine-plus players to get the job done, so contributions from the likes of Gary West, Michael Kaelin, Alex Dadourian and Xavier McCormick were not only welcomed, they were vital.
The players bought in, and the coaches "coached them up." Healy brought a passion and energy to the program, and made a smart move in assembling a staff around him -- which included Dave Field, Tim Simo, Wellington Smith, and Don Standing -- that brought strong skills of their own, and significant local knowledge.
The program looks poised for a big uptick. The three graduating seniors -- Gonzalez, Maloney, and Montgomery -- will certainly leave a large hole to fill, and the program will once again need to replace their leading scorer next season. But the returning players, led by Wong, will have a familiarity with the system and its leader, and should hit the court running. Plus, they will be no doubt joined by several players from the JV squad, which had a successful 15-5 season.
The contest versus Mendham showed just how far Summit has come this season. In a quarter where Gonzalez scored every Summit point, the Hilltoppers were tied after one, 11-11, and trailed by just one, at 18-17, at the half.
Despite back-to-back three balls fro the Minutemen's Brendan O'Donnell, Summit hung tough in the third quarter and trailed just 31-27 heading into the final frame in what looked to be a one or two possession game down to the wire.
Mendham showed it's class in the fourth, however, opening with a three and slowly, patiently, and efficiently easing the lead out to double digits. Summit was chasing the game, and not converting on the offensive end. Mendham, meanwhile, was coolly taking what the Hilltoppers gave them, which meant a string of trips to the charity stripe.
Brian Kenez made most of his 12 free throws during the second half and a bunch in the final frame. Automatic at the line, Kenez ended as the game's high scorer with 22 points. Gonzalez led Summit with 17, with Wayne Wong -- a force all night on both ends of the floor -- chipping in eight.
"Mendham is a really good team, and the goal was come out in a 2-3 zone, keep it close, and turn it on late," said Healy. "We just needed to convert better at both ends of the floor."
Still, Healy freely confessed his pride, affection, and respect for his team. "Credit to the kids, fourth coach in four years, and they had a lot learning to do. I really like this group, they bought in, and I am grateful every day that I got to coach these guys."